Voting equipment around the state is breaking down. There is limited money for new systems. A complex statewide voter registration database has been years in the making. And while hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars change hands every day in California, the state’s public-disclosure system confuses searchers and occasionally stops working. Whoever gets the keys to California’s secretary of state’s office in January will inherit a lengthy to-do list for the post’s role overseeing voting and elections, its most public responsibility. The office also handles businesses filings. Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who recently disclosed that she is battling depression, has defended her tenure and blamed politics for would-be successors’ criticism of her office during this year’s campaign. Budget cuts during the recession and a lack of new funding have hampered efforts to improve some programs, she has said, such as the Cal-Access campaign-finance website. But whether it is Republican Pete Peterson or Democrat Alex Padilla, California’s next secretary of state will need to hit the ground running, county registrars and other experts say.
The November winner will be California’s fourth secretary of state in less than a decade. Former secretary of state Kevin Shelley resigned two years into his term amid allegations of wrongdoing, and appointed replacement Bruce McPherson served a similar time before losing to Bowen in 2006.
Bowen, a former Los Angeles-area legislator, has periodically faced criticism for being disengaged during her nearly eight years in office. The state’s electorate, meanwhile, has become larger, more diverse and much more attached to voting by mail instead of at polling places. Dean Logan, Los Angeles County’s registrar-recorder/county clerk, said the next secretary of state will face immense challenges.
“From my perspective, the issue is really one of leadership and collaboration,” Logan said. “The future of the elections process in California is unclear. Regardless of who gets elected … there needs to be a recognition that he’s the state’s chief elections official and not just a bureaucrat.”